CHARLEMONT — As our sturdy blue raft splashed through a rocky drop, the guide hollered out above the roar of the waves the spot’s nickname: “Slamdance!
When the waves swept us between two large stones jutting out of the water, he called out:
Our guide, Frank Mooney, had nicknames for my 10-year-old son, Owen, too: “Alfalfa” for the sprout of dirty blond hair sticking up out of an airhole in his helmet and “Brownie Face,” alluding to the fact that Owen didn’t bother to wipe up after lunch.
Sharing our raft were brothers Jeff and Maury Gittleman, from New Jersey and Maryland, who were on vacation visiting their parents at their time share in Hancock. Jeff brought along his 15-year-old son, Noah; Maury, his 14-year-old daughter, Celia.
At one point Mooney egged on Celia as he prepared his troops for a water fight with the other boats.
“I want to see your mean side,” he teased.
“OK, I’ll bring it,” she replied, not too convincingly.
Guests of the Crab Apple Whitewater adventure company in the Berkshires often say they were surprised to learn that you can go white-water rafting in Massachusetts. Many tell Mooney, who runs the business with his wife, Jenn, they thought you have to travel all the way to Colorado to shoot rapids.
“That’s a battle our advertising budget is never going to win,” said Mooney, taking a break during a recent run on a balmy Tuesday. “People who come here are blown away — ‘You can do this in Massachusetts?’ ”
In fact, Crab Apple and its competitors — there are two main ones in the state, Zoar Outdoor and Moxie Rafting — benefit from the timed releases of water from electric utilities that use rivers and dams to generate hydroelectric power. Our trip took place on the Fife Brook Dam section of the Deerfield River, which, given the number of power stations along its 76 miles, is sometimes referred to as the “hardest working river in the country.”
Crab Apple’s Fife Brook rafting trip is designed for families with children age
8 and up. Ten miles long, with three to four hours on the water, it’s graded as Class 1-3, or beginner to intermediate, on the white-water scale. Classes 4 and 5 are for advanced paddlers, with stronger rapids and more expertise required. Each of the Massachusetts companies offer several options, including more leisurely
“funyaking” trips on inflatable kayaks.
In addition to the Deerfield, the companies offer white-water trips on Millers River, West River, and — believe it or not — the Concord River through the heart of urban Lowell, typically in April and May.
The Fife Brook section combines some drops and rapids with languid stretches that provide ample opportunity to rest and marvel at the natural beauty of the Berkshires. Rafting parties often get a glimpse of a black bear rooting for berries near the water’s edge — or at least the first few rafts in the parties do, Mooney said, before the first paddler who yells “Bear!” scares it away.
Mooney grew up in Waltham, a city kid. He never imagined he’d spend his days running rivers tucked deep in the Berkshires. He’s come to know the terrain so well, he’s named the local beaver Justin.
A couple of decades ago he went off to Bowdoin College. He met a girl, Jenn Peabody, and took a summer job as a guide at the original Crab Apple, her family’s growing white-water rafting company a few hours away in mid-Maine.
“I fell in love with her, the river, the whole thing,” he said.
Frank and Jenn Mooney established the Massachusetts branch of the family business in the 1990s. They have built it up from serving a modest several hundred customers each of their first few seasons to more than 15,000 annually today.
While Crab Apple claims to do the most volume of the state’s white-water companies, Mooney doesn’t like to emphasize the point.
“We want the exact opposite, actually,” he said. The company relies on positive word-of-mouth about its family atmosphere: Jenn’s parents, Chuck and Sharyn Peabody, who moved their family from Hingham to the wilds of Maine in 1983 to start the business, still run the headquarters on the Kennebec River, with help from their son Robert and his wife, Courtney.
This year the Massachusetts operation has 32 guides, only seven of whom are newcomers.
“That’s a high percentage,” said Mooney.
On the river, there’s plenty of fun and games, but the guides don’t hesitate to point out the potential dangers. This summer a couple of young people floating on the river in inner tubes without life jackets have died in mishaps, Mooney said.
Moments after our initial launch, the boat dipped through some rapids and we were doused with brisk river water, instantly exhilarated. A short while later, Mooney directed Owen to climb to the front of the boat with his legs dangling over the side, gripping the perimeter rope. As we approached some mild rapids, he called it the “bull ride.”
When our boat passed the company’s official photographer standing on the banks of the river, the guide ordered Owen to stand up and raise his index finger in the “Number One” salute.
“There’s a hierarchy to how we do things on the river,” he said with a smile. “The first thing is looking cool, and the second is safety. I think we can do both.”
After lunch, a picnic on the riverbank, the guides picked a calm section of the river and began to organize the trip’s customary water fight. They bunched the boats close together and instructed rafters on the proper way to fill a bucket and launch water at a “rival” raft. Guests took turns standing and heaving until everyone was good and soaked.
“Viva Mexico!” yelled one grinning man whose family was visiting his brother in Sturbridge from, yes, Mexico.
Other boats — a dozen or so in all — were filled with parties dressed like teams. One group wore matching tie-dyed T-shirts. Another apparently agreed on the Gothic look.
“Guess you have to wear black to be in that boat,” joked Mooney as the group hurtled past along one of the river’s rockier sections.
He pointed to a large rock up ahead and asked whether anyone could guess why it was blue. Then he ordered his paddlers to take aim for it. The bow of the boat banged up against the rock and jolted us all back, and everyone laughed.
By then we’d grown accustomed to being knocked around. We’d gladly go back for more.
Western. Mass. rafting companies
Crab Apple Whitewater
Deerfield, Millers, West rivers. 2056 Mohawk Trail,
Deerfield, Millers, West,
Concord rivers. 7 Main St., Charlemont. 413-339-4010, www.zoaroutdoor.com
66 South River Road,